Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tourism in Thailand, Doi Tung 1




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-->The Princess Mother was a great person. I wrote about her in my earlier posting. Our university was opened in her memory after her death.
She came from a humble family. She met the Thai prince in the USA. They married. The prince eventually became the king of Thailand, but his life was short. After the king’s death, their young son became king, and he remains the king today. The Princess Mother worked for charities after her husband’s death. Her main goal was to eradicate opium production in Northern Thailand. In the Doi Tung Museum is written a nice compliment to her: “Aristocratic by deeds, not by birth". This portrait characterizes her well.
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My young friends and office neighbors, O and Joy, showed me the Doi Tung royal villa, the former residence of the Princess Mother, as well as the site of her botanical garden. This place is 40 km North of Chang Rai in the mountains. I do not know words that can describe that amazing place, but I hope that you can see some of its astonishing beauty in the pictures below. Our university will build a similar botanical garden in the next five years.


























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The Princess Mother’s residence









Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Buddhism in Thailand II

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Suan Mokkh Buddhist Retreat

I returned after 12 days of living in the Buddhist meditation retreat for foreigners at Suan Mokkh monastery.

http://www.suanmokkh-idh.org/

I found this greeting on my door.


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I was very impressed. My dear friends Adele and Scott made this surprise for me. I thank them from all my heart.

Life in the retreat
The monastery and retreat were founded by the monk Buddhadasa (slave of the Buddha) who introduced a new explanation of Buddhism in Thailand, a “scientific” one. It states that there is no God, no soul, no reincarnation, just one life only. Nevertheless, Buddhadasa told his monks that he was the reincarnation of the Buddha in a modern time. This version of Buddhism was not accepted in the country.
The life was quite difficult and tiresome, as you can see from the  retreat schedule:

04.00 *** Wake up *** = Monastery bell
04.30Morning Reading
04.45 Sitting meditation
05.15 Yoga / Exercise
07.00 *** Dhamma talk & Sitting meditation
08.00 Breakfast & Chores
10.00 *** Dhamma talk
11.00 Walking or standing meditation
11.45 *** Sitting meditation
12.30 Lunch & chores
14.30 *** Meditation instruction & Sitting meditation
15.30 Walking or standing meditation
16.15 *** Sitting meditation
17.00 *** Chanting & Loving Kindness meditation
18.00 Tea & hot springs
19.30 *** Sitting meditation
20.00 Group walking meditation
20.30 *** Sitting meditation
21.00 *** Bedtime
(the gates will be closed at 21.15)
21.30 *** LIGHTS OUT


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This is my room
We slept on cement beds and had only a straw mat and wooden pillow.


Meditation hall

Our dorm from outside


our dorm inside

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There were two vegetarian meals per day, very tasty, all you can eat, so I was never hungry.
We were not permitted to talk (absolute silence), to leave the retreat grounds, or to read anything besides the works of Buddhadasa in our free time.
Dhamma talk was mostly a brain wash about Buddhadasa’s new version of Buddhism.

People

Who comes to this retreat ? Different people from many European countries, the US, and Canada. The majority were young, and there were more men than women.
On the last day, when we were permitted to speak, I asked two women who came for the third time why they come. One of them told me that her work on computers necessitates a lot of concentration. Meditation helps her mind to rest, and after living at the retreat she can continue her work successfully for a few months. Another one told me that she came for silence. She works with people, talks all day long, and frequently has to respond to the same stupid questions again and again. Many women came because of depression. Their sad faces told how unhappy they are. One girl came hoping to quit smoking. Not too many inmates were really interested in Buddhism. There were 126 people enrolled. Half of them left at different times, and only 62 remained to the end.

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Sorry for the bad picture. It was very early, before the dawn, and there was not enough light.



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Buddhism

I will write what I understood about the Buddha’s teachings during this retreat. I am not sure that it is correct, because only Buddhadasa's books were at the retreat, and none of the Buddha’s, though the Buddha was cited in some books and in songs, and monks told the Buddha stories.
Buddha lived in the forest, having nothing but a piece of fabric with which to wrap himself. He ate one vegetarian meal per day and meditated all the time. After 49 days of fasting, he had an Enlightenment. He proposed the Eightfold path and five commandments. I talked about them in the first blog on “Buddhism”. The idea was that there had been much suffering in the many rebirths he had had. That can be stopped and a person can go to nirvana, a permanent happiness, if he or she lives the right life in harmony with nature.
“Do not take any breath.” Breath in Pali, Thai and Indian (prana) means both breath and life, because life starts with the first breath and ends with the last one. “Do not accumulate”; one meal a day given by others is enough to sustain your body. The Buddha called his many followers “beggars”, and the word monk in Thai means beggar.

Could such a religion be practiced in Russia or other countries with a cold climate? Absolutely not. There, people need houses and substantial meals in the winter. One has to work hard to have them and has to accumulate food and clothes for the winter. Sometimes it is wise to accumulate more because the winter may be harder than usual. That is the beginning of materialism. Some people cannot stop when they have started to accumulate. I think that may explain the difference of character between Northern and Southern people. In the North, the weather is harsh. Here, nature is friendly, and anyone can live as the Buddha lived. Try to imagine the Buddha in the Siberian winter.

“Do not take any breath.” There was a “scorpion bin” in our dorm. A nun showed us how to catch a scorpion and put it in the bin. Such an attitude could not have been widely accepted in Siberia, where people relied very much on hunting, at least historically. Successful hunting necessitate a strong, aggressive character. A Thai who has two fruits can easily give you one. He can go to a tree and take two or more pieces of fruit. The fruit trees are everywhere. I am not sure that a hunter will give a hare to someone if he has two. He may not be so sure that he can catch two more.

This behavioral difference may exist in everyday life, but this philosophy does not hold when life-threatening conditions arise. During three years of Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia 21% of the population (two million out of over 8 million) died from political executions, famine and forced labor. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 30 to 60 million people (depending on the cited source) during his nearly 30-year rule. The results are similar. Cambodia is Thailand’s neighbor and has very nice weather. So the weather can explain only a part of human behavior, but probably not most important one.

Mindfulness

One should think only about this moment and not think about the past or the future, carefully take into attention what he or she is doing now, take into attention every detail.

Meditation

There was a lot of meditation. Meditation is an unfortunate translation of the Pali word in English. Pali was the Buddha's language. The Pali word means the transformation of mind, training for better concentration. The exercise intends to obtain the state of mind with no one thought in the brain, something contrary to the English meaning of meditation.

You can listen to birds, concentrate on listening, and not permit any wandering thought to reach your mind. You can concentrate on your breathing, on walking, on doing anything. All of these will be meditation if you do not permit any thought to enter your head and pay attention to the present moment only.
A monk told us terrible things about breathing meditation. Breathing meditation is divided into four levels. Each level is divided further into four steps, for a total of 16 steps. The first 4 steps involve taking long, deep breaths. This is intended to calm you. The next four steps involve short shallow breathing. The result is the state of happiness-- much better than sex, the monk. told us Some monks are addicted to it, and some even die from it.

The shallow breathing does not bring enough oxygen to the brain. Maybe that has a very big effect on the brain. I searched the Internet to see if the monk was telling the truth. I found that a small amount of research has been done on breathing meditation. The serious research employing brain MRIs has just begun.

The monk told us that while doing exercise we can change our mode of breathing. He did not say if it would be better or worthwhile, and we did not have the right to ask. So I did not do any special breathing. I left my breathing the same as mother nature gave it to me.

Another monk told us that many young people come to Buddhist temples in the US. Unfortunately, many of new US Buddhists have psychological problems, and some are drug addicts. I think they may coming to learn how to exchange their expensive drugs for free oxygen breathing.

I did a hearing meditation instead of breathing. At 4:30 am, when we usually started our program, only roosters could be heard. At dawn many other birds usually joined the chorus. So there was no problem.

The mind does not like to be empty. When I was listening to birds with closed eyes and breathing normally, some times I would see pictures rapidly changing one into another. Something similar to Salvador Dali. In the breathing theory it was the third level, before the Enlightenment, which is the fourth level. I was scared, and every time opened my eyes to stop it. I think a kind of hallucination happens during the third level of breathing meditation. The meditation theory says that at this level one can see pictures even with open eyes.

Enlightenment

The Buddha has it at the forth level of breathing.

Archimedes had it in the bath.

Newton was sitting in his garden and saw an apple falling from the tree. That was the start of the universal law of gravitation.

Mendeleev saw his periodic table in a dream.

Marina Vlady wrote that Vladimir Vysotsky waked up sometimes in the night and wrote the song he had dreamt.

The relaxed mind the common element of all of these examples. So you do not need to meditate, just relax.

Death

One day our joyful monk was very happy. He told us: “You are very lucky. Today a doctor who came to live in the the monastery died. We will keep him in the monastery for three days. After that, we will put him on a bonfire. It will be on the day you leave the retreat. So you can go and see all the procedure and take many photographs to show your friends and family. The doctor will be sitting on firewood, so you  will be able to see very well how his flesh explodes and burns."

After two days the monk said: “Bad news. The doctor passed away but did not die. Now he is in the hospital. So you cannot take photographs.” Later a nun told us that the had doctor died. Now people wanting to take photographs would have to wait two more days, because the monastery keeps corpses for three days.

On the last day we went to pay our respects to the doctor. His casket was installed in a big room and was closed. His daughter was there. She was all smiles when we entered, as if we had come to a Christmas party. We all got down on our knees and bowed. Our monk said: “Now you know what death means to Buddhists.”

Buddhadasa died in 1996. His sculpture is in a glass box. He looks like he is alive.




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There was no Buddha portrait in all the monastery. Someone donated the Buddha sculpture to the monastery. Buddhadasa installed it in park. It is difficult to see it in this picture. It the white sculpture at the far left.